Reviewing is about verbally assassinating your least-favourite artists one syllable at a time, right? Wrong. Becky Brewis talks to theatre, music, TV and film critics about how to write reviews that read well, do justice to the work and don’t pander to the hype…
Find your own method
How you work best will become apparent over time. Rebecca Nicholson, music and TV critic for The Guardian and BBC Radio 4’s Front Row says: “I write a lot of notes when I'm reviewing a TV show, many of which are things like ‘SEXY!’ or ‘YOU IDIOT’ written in capitals, underlined and circled. That's not going to make it into the final copy but it's a good reminder of moments with emotional clout.” She also recommends “jotting down names and places when they appear, in case you need to refer back to them. Gags or ideas for good lines may pop into your head – write them down as soon as they do, even if they're half-formed, and you can work on making them better afterwards.”
Not every critic takes notes. Eleanor Turney, who has reviewed for The Globe's blog and the Financial Times and currently edits A Younger Theatre (AYT), says: “I don't take notes, It's distracting for actors and other audience members. I write up as soon as I get in – the impressions that remain after 40 minutes on the tube are more important than thinking up a clever phrase mid-show.” And Matt Trueman, a freelance blogger, theatre critic and journalist who writes for The Guardian, Time Out and The Stage, leaves it even longer: “I can’t do it straight afterwards unless I’ve got a deadline. I write best in the mornings, having slept on it and let things settle.”
Learn the format – and then forget it
There is, arguably, a format to writing a review. For example, first paragraph: set out your argument. Second paragraph, if you're writing about a film or show: the synopsis, including names of actors and director. Next couple of paragraphs: develop your argument. Final paragraph: sum up your main point and give your verdict.
“The trick is to learn it and then try to subvert it, otherwise it will look boring”, says Ellen E Jones, Deputy Editor of the Indy's Independent Voices. She has reviewed films for Total Film, Esquire, Little White Lies and The Guardian. Ellen recommends asking yourself, “'What is the interesting thing about this film?' This could be the director, the actor, the studio or sometimes the argument and the context, but you’ve got to look for that one point to give your review focus.”
With more and more reviewers out there, reviews are becoming increasingly about entertaining the reader. The key to doing this well is finding your strengths as a writer. As Ellen says, some critics can be “quite serious, but their reviews are entertaining because they write in a way that brings the film to life with their language choices and metaphors and the way they arrange sentences.”
Be wary of clichés. “When I was starting out, someone told me to read back my writing, and if I could imagine reading that line anywhere else or by anyone else, then rewrite it,” says Rebecca. “This isn't always practical but it's a good reminder that you're trying to be an original voice.” Eleanor adds: “Hyperbole makes me wince, and I tend to advise the AYT writers to steer clear of saying things like, 'This is the best show I've ever seen' or 'so-and-so is the defining Lear of this generation'. Without the weight of experience it can sound rather hollow.”
…but don't be nasty!
Remember there is a difference between criticising a work and criticising an individual. Especially when it comes to fringe theatre reviews, “people involved in the production might actually read them,” points out Eleanor. “That doesn't mean you shouldn't be honest, but think about why you have had a negative reaction to a piece. It's often easier to write a terrible review than a positive one, but it's important to remember that reviews can have an effect on the people being reviewed.”
However, be too cautious and you risk doing your readers a disservice. Rebecca again: “One of the pitfalls of criticism is considering the feelings of the person or people involved in the project you're discussing. Though it may sound brutal, it's best to put them out of your mind. Television shows are made for an audience, and that's who you should be considering.”
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Image: Bands I saw.. by niznoz on a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.
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